The British Film Institute’s London Film Festival (LFF) is adopting a hybrid physical-online model for the first time in its history, and the process has been fraught with the myriad difficulties expected in a global pandemic.
“The biggest challenge, the whole time, has been stepping into the unknown,” festival director Tricia Tuttle told Variety. A festival of the scale of LFF, that in pre-pandemic times screened some 250 features across the city, with offshoots around the U.K., takes at least five months to put together. “We really had to lock early before we knew what the autumn would look like. We had to make some assumptions about what we would and wouldn’t be able to do, and that sort of pushed us to the hybrid model that we ended up with,” says Tuttle.
Another challenge the festival faced was convincing stakeholders to part with their films, but with the festival taking place in October, they’ve had several months of getting used to the new world, Tuttle said, and a renewed desire to reach out to audiences.
The festival will screen 13 films in cinemas and 58 films online. One of its mantras is providing access to all and with U.K. cinemas currently operating at a socially distanced 30% capacity, the hybrid model will have a wider reach.
While there are some cost advantages in the festival not bringing in international guests this year, the financial model has had to be recalibrated — as the vast majority of LFF’s 175,000 annual attendees can’t be present physically — with the attendant hit on box office. “To be honest, the bottom line isn’t very different, but it looks like a very different budget this year,” says Tuttle.
The access is not limited to Londoners. While the films will be available only to geo-blocked U.K. audiences, all the festival talks and the LFF Expanded extended reality program are available anywhere in the world. Outside the capital, the festival has physical venue partners in Manchester, Glasgow, Nottingham, Belfast, Sheffield, Cardiff and Bristol, that are part of the BFI’s Film Audience Network that the org works with year round. “It has changed the way by which we are going to be marketing and communicating the festival this year,” BFI chief executive Ben Roberts told Variety. “We have to market it nationally, rather than to a predominantly urban audience.”
“It is a completely reframed U.K.-wide message for us this year,” said Roberts. “One of the reasons why we wanted to take a more national approach this year is also that, in part, it helps with the national effort to get audiences back into cinemas. So, the benefit of a U.K.-wide program is for cinemas, as much as it is for audiences. Audiences are starting to get back into the habit of buying tickets to go to their local cinema again. LFF can be part of that this year.”
BFI Distribution frequently picks up LFF titles for U.K. distribution and the acquisition from this year’s crop so far is Bassam Tariq’s Berlin Fipresci Prize winner “Mogul Mowgli,” co-written by and starring “Star Wars” and “The Night Of” actor Riz Ahmed, who is from London.
“We made this for cities like Toronto, London, New York and Houston,” Tariq told Variety. “We’re so excited. I have no idea what to expect. This is where it really comes to life in a way. You make it for your friends, you make it for your family members, so this is one of those moments where it is like, ‘Okay, what are people going to say?'”
BFI Distribution will release “Mogul Mowgli” in the U.K. this fall.